before you read it, two things:
1. i am, in fact, allowed to express a personal opinion. i am therefore allowed to use pronouns. if you try to edit this, i will ignore you.
2. i have not finished putting in all the references yet. i've worked this essay a little backwards -- i wrote it first, THEN added quotes. i do, however, know what i'm talking about enough for you to get the general idea, so when i say something historically that doesn't have a reference, just trust me.
Many writers have dismissed Augustine as too ascetic to understand the purpose of theatre. Eric Segal writes in The Death of Comedy that the “theatre was the principal bêtê noir, and comedy in particular since the komos focuses on the joys of life in this world – with no regard for the next” (257). Eric Bently mentions in Theater of War that theatre “can present the whole sensual lure of the world, and that through the world’s darling allurements, the human body. So no wonder the theatre incurred the wrath of Saint Augustine and of all those for whom man’s body, and the world’s, represents mainly a threat” (339). I think, however, that it is too easy to dismiss Augustine’s anti-theatre stance as one of worldly rejection, especially in light of his comments in Confessions. This book is entirely based on his personal experiences, which makes his arguments harder to refute. He demands: “Why does man like to be made sad when viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which yet he himself would by no means suffer? And yet he wishes, as a spectator, to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very grief his pleasure consists” (III. II). It is pathological to want to watch people suffer. And it seems selfish to go to the theatre just to purge these emotions without putting them to good use – as Augustine says: “Howsoever, when he suffers in his own person, it is the custom to style it ‘misery’; but when he feels pity for others, then it is styled ‘mercy’. But what kind of mercy is it that arises from fictitious and scenic passions? The hearer is not expected to relieve, but merely invited to grieve; and the more he grieves, the more he applauds the actor of these fictions” (III. II). He mentions that he intentionally sought out tragedies of lost love and foiled passion; but this fascination with the idea of, to borrow a phrase, star-crossed lovers would not leave him alone outside of the theatre. It tortured his soul in his daily life, and so he went to the theatre for more misericordia, and the more pity he felt, the more he needed to go to the theatre.
This could stem from a personal problem; Augustine had a very tumultuous love-life. He was unable to marry the woman he loved because she was of a much lower social standing, so he bought her from her parents and kept her as his mistress. The injustice not only to himself, but to his mistress, and most of all to the son he had with her, plagued him with gut-wrenching, agonizing guilt for the rest of his life. One is reminded of Orestes and the Furies in the Oresteia.
However, Augustine’s theatrical self-harm could be symptomatic of more wide-spread cultural break-down. There seems to be a trend in theatre history that drama is founded on worship, but it eventually separates and becomes its own culturally important institution. It is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself. I pass no judgment on whether this is good or bad, but it seems like, in breaking away from a more specific function, that the standards of drama become more relative, which makes theatre practice harder to justify. Because of his theatre’s decadence, Augustine could not find any use for theatre; is this a problem with his theatre alone, or does all entertainment eventually suffer a decline?
I believe the decline of the Roman theatre began long before Augustine attended the spectacles. In studying the history of Roman theatre, it seemed that the Romans themselves were confused about what “theatre” was. Augustine lumps dramatic (in the colloquial sense) theatre with pantomimes, farces, chariot races, and gladiatorial games, which he terms “spectacles” in City of God. Although he focuses on the lower, cruder of these spectacles, he insinuates that they are all equally morally degrading because they all entertain the audience’s bestial nature somehow. He also cites Roman hypocrisy toward their theatre – the Romans deny citizenship to actors (which Augustine says proves that Romans are more morally advanced), but they still attend the theatre, idolize poets and dramatists, and demand their “bread and circuses.” The Greeks at least knew not to contradict themselves; although their theatre showed disgusting amoral deities, as did the Romans’, they at least venerated the people involved in the production. If the Romans would only discover their hypocrisy, they would see that at their core they disapproved of the spectacles and would ban them altogether.
I agree with Augustine that the Romans, at their core, disapproved of the spectacles, but I disagree with his statement that this represents a higher moral constitution. Rather, it represents a sort of doublethink caused by cultural exchange with other Italic tribes. There is no evidence that the Romans did not have a form of ritual theatre, but if they did, it was subverted by their last king, Tarquin, who was an Etruscan. Because the gods decreed it, Tarquin imported Etruscan mimes, dancers, and musicians, and held the first Ludi Romani. Being a very superstitious people, the Romans quickly adopted these spectacles because they pleased the gods, but the actors in the spectacles were not native Romans. When the Romans exiled King Tarquin and created the Republic, they strove to culturally define themselves – but they kept the imported Etruscan festivals. Livy chronicles that they were still using these festivals to placate the gods in 366 BCE when a plague struck Rome, and they imported Etruscan dancers and mimes to perform the actual ceremonies. There was a clear distinction in the Roman mind between a Citizen and an Actor. When they imported Greek theatre later, they knew that it belonged with the other spectacles, as a foreign religious expression that pleased the gods in some way. However, Romans actually became involved in Greek plays, instead of using Greek slaves. This confused the more conservative Roman mind – why would an upright citizen accept the job of a slave, even if it seemed like fun? It was anti-patriotic, and, in pre-Christian Rome, that meant anti-religious as well.
So that is really why Romans didn’t like actors; they had originally been a slave class. And that is why the Romans felt uneasy about their theatre; it wasn’t really theirs’. It has nothing to do with their higher moral standing. Their theatre might have been emotionally ineffective because they never personalized it in their culture. But does the fault really lie with the Roman culture, or was theatre in the 4th century C.E. world not doing something for the soul or emotions that it should have been doing? Since the “tragic theatre” Augustine went to see was based on Greek models, what was Greek theatre originally designed to do?
In Augustine the Reader, Brian Stock writes of the heightened passions of a theatre audience: “In that frame of mind we participate in the story as members of a temporary community, one that includes the actors themselves” (36). Maybe that’s what the Athenian Greeks needed in their tragedy; they needed an experience that would emotionally bond them to each other, make them distinctly Athenian. It may not have been on purpose at first; the City Dionysia may have started as a way to indoctrinate people with these nationalist stories so that, a few generations down the line, they’d all have the same cultural history. What happened as a byproduct of the best tragedies was an unbreakable closeness with each other as a community. They were merciful toward each other, as Augustine would point out. That kind of heart-to-heart was more nationally valuable than anything else the Athenian government could have done. For those several hours, in a giant amphitheatre, thousands upon thousands of people were deeply moved in a similar way, and saw each other as fellow human beings.
Greek tragedy also follows a typical ritual pattern – that of the scapegoat festival. In Thespis, Theodor Gaster writes: “Among the Hebrews, the autumnal festival of Ingathering … was preceded by a solemn Day of Catharsis [Yôm ha-Kippurîm]. The occasion was marked by a fast, a suspension of normal activities, and the expulsion of a scapegoat which was supposed to carry into the wilderness the accumulated burden of communal sin and wrongdoing. So too among the Greeks, the Athenian festival of Thargelia, held in March, features a purgatory expulsion of human scapegoats” (18, italics mine). In Golden Age Greek Tragedy, the tragic hero acted as the scapegoat, but the ritual had become more secular. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy – an action of great magnitude, performed and not narrated, which purifies emotions through the purging of pity and terror – hints that psychological remnants of the scapegoat ritual remained in Greek drama.
A good tragedy can also present a moral message, but that message is often focused on personal responsibility. Brian Vickers mentions, in Towards Greek Tragedy, that Greek tragedy, as historians know it, had an entirely different, non-ritual purpose: “Ritual uses extremely stylized roles, the action having been reduced to a pattern. Drama is, for the Greeks, a completely different form: it is highly individualized, it deals with concrete human situations in a specific and personal way … Some situations are echoed from play to play, and some microdramatic forms (a lament, a messenger speech) may be found in different plays, but no two plays are identical” (41). The specificity of individual experience in Greek tragedy, to Vickers, points out the mentality of the democratic Athenian: “But these connected attitudes to human life as an individual experience not a depersonalized collective activity, with the individual being free to act, free to punish those who break written or unwritten laws or to be punished himself for those offenses – these are essential assumptions in Greek tragedy” (108). It was paramount for an Athenian Greek man to uphold laws and cultural standards, and to break any of these codes was a sin. For example, Orestes, in the Oresteia, kills his mother Clytemnestra because she killed her husband, Agamemnon, and took over his kingdom. While Orestes committed the sin of matricide, his own mother had destroyed the head of the family in an attempt to end that family line and replace it with her own. Since Athenians traced heritage through the father as the pater familius, Orestes’ intentions were somewhat justified, so Athene finally convinces Zeus to turn the Furies into the Eumenides so they will no longer torment law-abiding citizens. Everyone, including the gods, takes personal responsibility for their actions and their role in the tragedy. Similarly, Oedipus, in Oedipus Rex, takes personal responsibility for his actions, even though he was unaware that he had killed his father and committed incest with his mother. He unwittingly usurped his father’s place as pater familius. His punishment for himself is to gouge his eyes out and wander blindly through the world for the rest of his life, as he metaphorically wandered blindly into sin at Thebes.
Tragedies of romance are a little different, however, and this is apparently what Augustine was watching more often. For example, a high school reading of Romeo and Juliet does not place any personal responsibility on the title characters; they’re in love, they want to get married, but society prevents them from being together, and so they die. At the end of the play, the families are forced to recognize their role in this sorrowful event; if they had not allowed the tension between their households to become so violent, these two children would not have done dangerous things, like take poison, behind their parents’ backs. The fault, in a conventional reading of the play, lies with society, not with the innocent lovers. It therefore presents a dangerous picture of the world as chaotic and unjust, and this chaos is easily taken advantage of. Because society will not let us do what we want, the culture must be unjust; because society is unjust, our emotional rebellion against society is justified; if our rebellion is justified, then our extreme actions must be good; if our extreme actions are good, our death or pain is not our personal punishment for our extremism, it is not the universe righting itself, it is instead our adolescent punishment of our parents. It is Orestes and Electra before the Furies. We use ourselves as instruments of divine retribution, and that is not what the Greeks saw as tragic. Greek tragedy was one man taking the weight of the law on himself for the good of the community.
Augustine was probably obsessed with these star-crossed tragedies because he needed to believe that the way he treated his mistress was justified. Instead of marrying her as an equal, despite her social class, he bought her as a slave. While the arrangement was legally acceptable, it was not a true expression of Augustine’s feelings for this woman. Maybe he felt like he was lying to her. Maybe he felt like Roman law, and his mother’s harsh rule, was unfair. He felt that he found a sympathetic ear in Roman love-tragedies; however, the lovers on stage were killing themselves rather than succumbing to the tyranny of their parents or their culture. Augustine was not brave enough to do that. He had succumbed. He was guilty.
Augustine spent this period of his life searching for an answer – in the theatre, in various forms of atheism and deism, in Manichaeism. Nothing provided a sense of relief, or a stable moral system by which he could judge himself and rectify himself. He oscillated unhappily between the world of books and the world of emotions; and then he discovered Christianity. This new religion, still in its early stages of formation, provided not only a clear doctrine of right and wrong, but a great tragic hero in the character of Jesus Christ. Like Orestes, Christ had taken on the weight of the world personally, and in his agony, he convinced God that humans were worth saving. We experience catharsis in the story of Jesus’ life, and that pity and terror fuels our desire to live our lives as responsible tragic heroes.
On the other hand, perhaps Augustine expresses a typical sentiment of his time. If the majority of tragedies being performed at the time concerned lost love, and if the comedies were as full of bad examples as he says, then perhaps the Greek fascination with the individual had been twisted in Roman culture into mere pomp and show. Perhaps the characters and plots had no substance, but the need for a tragic hero (whether he acts as scapegoat or teaching tool) was still there. Perhaps that was why Christianity became so overwhelmingly popular. The revival of the scapegoat ritual in Christian mythology might even have fueled the rebirth of tragedy in the Middle Ages. Everyman, while not a tragedy in the strictest sense, ends in the death of the title character, and he accepts his death knowing that he has done what he can to be a good person. He literally represents every person, and therefore represents all our sins, and because he takes responsibility for sin, he can die peacefully. He knows that he will be reborn in Heaven.
Tragedy in Augustine’s time had retained its pathos, but had lost its purgation. Like a tragic hero, Tragedy had to die and be reborn in a new era to become significant again. Where does that leave modern spectacles? Many people argue that violence in movies and on television is as bad as the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire. In many ways, its worse, because we know that the violence is fake, and we learn to emotionally distance ourselves from these horrors with a spiritual fourth wall. Catharsis has lost to capitalism. Should we pull the plug and let theatre die in the hope that it will be reborn a few centuries from now?
MODERN TRAGIC THEATRE
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman perversely triumphs over the competitiveness that held him back all his life – he kills himself, and the $20,000 insurance goes to his family, so they can finally have financial comfort. While the audience may be shocked by this ending, while they may weep over the strain that finally caused him to lose his mind, the play itself is hardly similar to a classic Greek tragedy. The main character is a common man, not all-powerful royalty.
And yet there is something very liberating in this, at least for an American. American mythology centers around common people becoming great heroes – Paul Bunyan, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln. This country has never had an aristocracy like Europe’s, and so we do not identify royalty as significantly better than us. We see ourselves more clearly in Willy Loman than Oedipus; we weep for ourselves when Willy finally takes full responsibility and, like Oedipus, judges himself. Out of our collective need for purging, in a time when belief in anything other than a salary is suspect, Arthur Miller revived the tragic hero to tell us our own story, purge us of misconceptions about the American Dream, and help us rebuild our own personal dignity.
Death of a Salesman is a great modern tragedy, but not many people have emulated Arthur Miller’s style. The theatre is losing audiences to movies and television, which offer quick, cheap, constant entertainment. Movies are becoming more like paintings – Sin City is based on a graphic novel, and every scene looks like the pulp comic that inspired it – and television is becoming more like gladiatorial games (Fear Factor), pantomimes (The Real World), and chariot races (NASCAR). Augustine’s lament – “Are sorrows, then, also loved? Surely all men desire to rejoice?” (III. II) – seems more accurate than ever.
Truthfully, I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t disprove Augustine’s claim that entertainment is emotionally manipulative, because, honestly, that is part of the point. I agree that mercy should not be wasted on actors on stage – it should be acted upon in the real world. People should not use entertainment just to purge themselves of guilt and terror; on the other hand, people should not use the church just to make themselves feel better, without acting on doctrines like “Love thy neighbor” and “Thou shalt not kill.” I suppose that it is human nature to abuse any available institution. I think, ultimately, Augustine had problems distancing himself from the theatre, because the plays he watched hit too close to home. I also think Augustine tended toward extremism his entire life, so for him, it was complete acceptance of all entertainment, or no entertainment at all. Besides that, he found his tragic hero in the figure of Christ, rather than in the theatre. As for entertainment itself, it seems to me that the scapegoat/personal responsibility formula is still the most effective, and it appears in both comedy and tragedy – for example, modern entertainment like Die Hard, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Fight Club all share a main character that, although completely different from us in the audience, we bond with emotionally, we suffer with them as the plot unfolds, and, through their tragic downfall or miraculous triumph, we feel a sense of awe, followed by a sense of relief. I think entertainment that does not do this is missing something, but then again, entertainment that does it for me will not do it for someone else. My point is, however, that these archetypes are still with us, and they are still entertaining, even enlightening. The fact that entertainment and art has appeared in all cultures all over the world, and has survived this long, despite repeated attempts in the Western world to demolish it, proves, to me, that it is somehow essential to human nature, and that in itself should prove its worth. If the entertainment you are watching does not satisfy you emotionally, perhaps what you are seeing is just bad art.